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Albin-Lackey based his report on interviews with tenants charged under the state's criminal evictions law, landlords, a district judge, lawyers and independent legal experts, including members of the study commission, in Little Rock, North Little Rock, Cabot and West Memphis.
Like other states, Arkansas has a civil eviction process — a clunky and expensive affair that the commission recommends streamlining. Based on data HRW gathered from 11 district courts, it's safe to assume that criminal evictions are vastly more common. Those courts alone heard more than 1,200 criminal eviction cases in 2012.
"Arkansas's criminal evictions law is a strange blend of archaic lawmaking, modern day lobbying and shoddy drafting," reads the HRW report. Some portion of the criminal failure-to-vacate statute has been on the books since 1901. In 1989, the state Supreme Court upheld the statute, and in 2001, the legislature increased the penalties for tenants choosing to plead not guilty. Under the statute, a tenant who is just a day late on rent can be served a 10-day notice to vacate. A tenant who doesn't vacate is automatically guilty of a general misdemeanor that bumps up to a Class B misdemeanor upon a guilty plea or court ruling. In some cases, the tenant is arrested and detained. In other cases, the tenant is simply served with a summons, or is arrested, given a court date and released. Ultimately, what happens to the defendant has nothing to do with the details of the case, and everything to do with where the eviction occurred. "One of the reasons this law is so problematic is that it's enforced differently in different counties," said Foster. "Some prosecutors refuse to enforce the law at all, presumably because they find the law unfair." The federal government forbids criminal eviction of tenants receiving federally-subsidized housing.
Albin-Lackey's research in Arkansas last summer included attending court proceedings and learning how the evictions process works. "There are at least one or two [cities] where the police go to peoples' houses and actually arrest them ... and they have to make bail if they're going to be released. Otherwise, they have to stay in pretrial detention," he said.
In Jacksonville, for example, he found that most tenants are detained until they come up with $250 bail (though Jacksonville Police Officer Jessica Hartfield-Lee said the department's standard bail for failure-to-vacate is higher, $750). In Little Rock and North Little Rock, tenants are merely served with a summons. According to Will Jones, supervisor over Pulaski County district courts, the county processes anywhere from 10 to 30 criminal evictions a day.
Pine Bluff Assistant City Attorney Daryl Taylor handles a criminal eviction roughly every other week. The defendants are never arrested. "An arrest is a traumatic experience, and we balance the weight of the crime with the potential outcome. If the potential outcome is a fine, that's just not the type of offense we arrest for," she said.
Mike Murphy, Conway city attorney, can't remember the last time he prosecuted a criminal eviction. "Usually when we point out to folks that the criminal statute can be used to fine the person, but that there's no equitable remedy in the statute to order the people to leave, most folks opt to go through the civil eviction process," he said. "It's much faster in terms of getting an order to vacate."
State law penalizes defendants for pleading not guilty, which Albin-Lackey said is a denial of due process. "The law says if you plead guilty, you don't have to put up the money that you allegedly owe your landlord," said Albin-Lackey. "You'll just be convicted and fined [$25 a day, for every day that you occupied the premise illegally] or handed down whatever sentence the district court wants to give you. If you plead not guilty, you're required to pay all of the money that you allegedly owe your landlord to the court registry. So you're basically asked to put up money that you didn't have in the first place just to exercise your right to have a trial. If you don't have that money and still want to plead not guilty, you end up facing much harsher sentencing if you're actually convicted, than had you just pled guilty."
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